U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno visited the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) on June 12 to see demonstrations of the institute’s breakthroughs in graphics, virtual human and mixed-reality technologies, exploring how these advances can continue to have a positive impact on soldiers.
“The work that is being done here is something that I think is critical for us as we move to the future,” Odierno said. “It is important for the Army to work with institutions such as this — which have the creative capability, the expertise and the phenomenal credentials of people who work here — to try to utilize their knowledge.”
Odierno, who arrived at the institute’s Playa Vista campus in a Black Hawk helicopter, saw examples of current ICT work addressing improvised explosive devices and post-traumatic stress, as well as projects in the research pipeline that aim to bring down the costs and increase the effectiveness of virtual reality-based simulations.
“It was a tremendous honor to host the Army Chief of Staff,” said Randall W. Hill Jr., ICT executive director. “Our mission as an Army-sponsored university-affiliated research center is to combine the technological and creative capital available at USC and in Los Angeles to develop new ways to teach and train. I think the general saw that we are achieving that, and his visit here began a conversation on ways our partnership can do even more to benefit our troops.”
The Army’s highest-ranking officer toured the ICT Graphics Lab and learned about the group’s Academy Award-winning Light Stage scanning process for creating realistic digital faces. He also volunteered as a scanning subject, taking a few minutes to pose inside the LED-filled sphere so that his face can be recreated as an avatar or virtual character. Having a personalized digital avatar for every soldier is something the Army plans to incorporate into its virtual-training programs. The techniques developed at ICT allow for an unprecedented level of detail, including fine wrinkles and skin pores.
Researchers showed the four-star general how far the institute has come in developing believable virtual humans that can speak, understand and gesture like real people. Odierno entered the Gunslinger saloon, where computer-generated characters take on the iconic roles of the Western bartender, bad guy and damsel in distress, while a real person plays a Texas Ranger who must save the day. The Hollywood-inspired exchange demonstrated the degree that story, character and advanced technology play in the institution’s work.
“It is helping us to develop capabilities that will allow us to keep people interested, to keep simulations realistic,” he said. “I think that is important.”
He added that that the immediacy and flexibility of practicing with a virtual-role player, which can potentially be loaded on a laptop and programmed for an endless variety of situations, has other advantages as the Army strives to build adaptive leaders who have to operate in complex environments.
“What is important about it is you are able to interact, make mistakes, to run several different types of scenarios, to understand how to react and get feedback on how you react,” he said. “And you can critique yourself; you can have other people critique you. So in my mind it is really a capability and capacity we have never had before.”
Current ICT virtual-human prototypes are being used to train soldiers in counseling and interpersonal communication skills. Virtual patients for teaching interviewing skills are also in development.
Odierno also saw demonstrations of Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan, ICT’s virtual-reality exposure therapy for treating post-traumatic stress, and of SimCoach, a Web-based virtual human who provides support to soldiers and their families seeking help or mental health support resources.
“To me, these ideas are absolutely phenomenal in helping us to try to solve some of these difficult issues,” he said.
Odierno was accompanied by senior members of his staff and from the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command and Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
“It was a great opportunity for our researchers to hear firsthand how technologies developed here help solve real-world problems,” Hill said. “It is gratifying to see that we are indeed making a difference.”
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